Sri Ganganagar: Subhas Takhar loves his evening rides on the white horse he bought last year. A well-off farmer from Sri Ganganagar district of Rajasthan who owns around 25 hectares of mostly irrigated land, Takhar spent 2 lakh to buy the horse.

Yet, he never cared to spend the 5 a sample it costs to get the soil in his fields tested at the district soil testing lab. A test at the facility that is barely 20km away could save Takhar money spent on fertilizers and spruce up the productivity of pulses and cereals he grows.

Not that he is unaware of soil testing. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Sri Ganganagar to launch the ambitious Soil Health Card scheme in February this year, Takhar and thousands of farmers from the agriculturally prosperous district at the north-western edge of India flocked to listen to him.

“Applying fertilizer, best quality seeds and ample water is not enough. Farmers should nurture their soil and know what inputs to use and in what quantities," Modi told the gathering of farmers. “In Gujarat, where every farmer has a Soil Health Card, unnecessary expenses on inputs have come down and farmers have saved a lot of money."

Modi was previously chief minister of Gujarat (from 2001 to 2014) and many experts say the true measure of his success in the state was the agricultural revival it witnessed in the time.

Indian farmers tend to overuse urea as it is cheaper and highly subsidized compared with other macronutrients such as phosphorous and potassium fertilizers, prices of which are not regulated. For instance, on average, farmers apply double the amount of urea compared with the recommendations, and in some states like Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, 10-15 times more than the requirement.

The result is a declining response of crops to fertilizer use; the amount of foodgrain produced per kg of fertilizer applied declined from around 13kg in the 1970s to less than 4kg by 2010, according to data from the fertilizer ministry.

Modi expects the Soil Health Card scheme to correct the imbalance in the use of fertilizers, and boost productivity and farm incomes. The scheme is an ambitious makeover of its earlier avatar— National Project on Management of Soil Health and Fertility that was launched during 2008-09 by the previous United Progressive Alliance government.

In its present form—the National Democratic Alliance government re-launched it this year as a flagship mission—the scheme has a target of providing each of the 140 million farmers in the country with a Soil Health Card in the next three years.

The card will list the nutrients in the soil alongside physical parameters (like pH for measuring acidity or alkalinity) and will have an advisory on the correct fertilizer dose that will give every farmer the optimum yield. The card will have to be renewed every three years to keep a tab on the changing nutrient levels in the soil.

The scale of the ambition, however, is not matched by funds. The Centre allotted only 200 crore for the scheme in this year’s budget as part of the 568 crore to be spent over three years.

Paucity of funds and dedicated personnel are reasons that the sole soil testing laboratory in Sri Ganganagar is ill-equipped to take on the mammoth task it faces. For instance, the district has 121,000 farm holdings; the target this year (2015-16) is to issue 112,000 Soil Health Cards, while during the first three months of the fiscal year (April-June) only 1,463 cards were issued.

The slow progress of the scheme in a district where the Prime Minister himself launched it is telling. A visit to the soil testing lab shows why. The lab has the requisite equipment to test pH levels, nitrogen, phosphorous and potash content as well as micronutrient deficiency, but cannot handle more than 800 samples in a month.

Last week when Mint visited the lab, only an assistant was on duty—the post of the agricultural research officer, who is in charge of the lab, is yet to be filled. The assistant agricultural research officer was on leave for the day. With just two technical staff equipped to test soil samples, a farmer needs to wait for at least a month to get the report and related advisory.

Still, some farmers are willing to put in the time and effort. For instance, 45-year-old Dilip Manju travelled three hours on a bus to reach the lab at the district headquarters. “This is the second time I came with samples for testing. In the past few years, my expenses on fertilizers have come down by 20% and yields have improved," he said. But only a handful of farmers in his village test their soil due to lack of knowledge and also because there are no labs close by, Manju added.

“It would be better if we could travel to villages and set up camps there to educate farmers and collect samples, but there is neither money nor staff for that," said Radha Chhabra, the lab assistant.

Chhabra’s senior, the district agricultural officer Satish Sharma, agrees. “The main challenge in scaling up the programme is that funding is inadequate— the scheme needs more technical staff, many more labs and mobile facilities," he said. “We are planning to set up three more labs under the public-private partnership model."

The daunting task ahead can be gauged by the fact that it costs at least 3 crore to set up a new lab, said R.N. Goswami, former director of extension education at the Rajasthan Agriculture University.

“Now farmers treat urea like the god, without knowing that the soil may require more phosphorous or micronutrients like zinc, sulphur and boron. The Soil Health Card scheme is the best way to achieve balanced fertilization, but the scheme has not picked up pace even after the inauguration by the Prime Minister," he added.

The problem is not limited to Rajasthan alone. Numbers show a remarkable progress in collection of samples, but only a fraction of these are being tested, and fewer cards distributed among farmers—pointing to a shortage of laboratories and manpower in states.

Nationally, the scheme targets to provide Soil Health Cards to 30 million farmers in 2015-16 and about 55 million cards each in the next two years, thereby covering 140 million farmers in three years. The plan is to test 25 million soil samples in three years to generate 140 million Soil Health Cards. In 2015-16, the target is to collect 9 million samples to generate 30 million cards.

How is the countrywide progress? Data from the agriculture ministry shows that till mid-July (three-and-a-half months of this fiscal year), nearly 3.8 million soil samples have been collected—more than 40% of the target for the year. But only a fifth of these samples (0.75 million) were tested and less than a tenth—0.32 million—Soil Health Cards were distributed among farmers.

The state-wise progress in distribution of Soil Health Cards shows a skewed performance, with just five states accounting for 86% of the cards distributed. These include Andhra Pradesh (163,094), Chhattisgarh (22,570), Madhya Pradesh (20,172), Punjab (27,307) and Uttar Pradesh (47,378). And as many as 12 states are yet to issue Soil Health Cards for this year. These include Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and West Bengal.

A part of the delay in testing samples could be that the scheme provides a paltry 40 crore to set up new labs or strengthen existing ones. But ministry officials in charge of the programme deny there is any dearth of funds or that infrastructure is lacking.

“Right now, we have 1,244 government labs (a lab can test 10,000 samples in a year) that can easily handle the target of testing 9 million samples this year," said Rani Kumudini, joint secretary at the agriculture ministry who is overseeing the progress of the scheme nationally. “Still, we are not going by the law of averages as some districts or states may not have adequate facilities. For that we have completed a district-wise mapping exercise of labs and their facilities. We are advising states to depute requisite people in the lab. We are also bringing together lab facilities with state agricultural universities and staff in agriculture extension services for testing."

On the skewed performance among states, Kumudini said that different states follow different strategies: while some may go for sample collection first and then distribute cards to farmers some months later, others follow a staggered approach. “It is too early to evaluate their performance in distribution of cards," she said.

It is unlikely that one scheme will change the behaviour of farmers and by spending just 40 per farmer ( 568 crore for 140 million farmers), said Himanshu, associate professor of economics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, who is also a Mint columnist

“To change the pattern of fertilizer use, the entire ecosystem, including pricing policy of inputs and crops, needs an overhaul. The nutrient-based subsidy regime increased prices of all fertilizers except urea, so farmers applied more urea. In places like Punjab, the support prices for rice has led farmers to indiscriminately use urea to grow paddy," said Himanshu, who uses only one name. “It is one thing to give advice, but how will you enforce adoption when extension services are so weak?"

It may be easy for the government to access large farmers like Takhar, but to reach each of India’s 140 million farmers, most of whom have small landholdings, could be a daunting challenge.

More so, as the exercise needs to be repeated every three years; soil health is a dynamic parameter. Just providing a card with an advisory isn’t enough—to translate the goal of balanced fertilization into practice will be no less a challenge.

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